The F-35 is lethal and survivable in almost any environment, but it’s just a machine, unable to do anything without a skilled pilot. Those pilots need gear to interface with the jet, operate and survive.
Outfitting the pilots is the job of the Airmen in the 388th Operations Support Squadron Aircrew Flight Equipment shop. A handful are currently deployed from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, to Nellis AFB, Nev., for Red Flag 19-1.
Red Flag is the Air Force’s premier combat training exercise where units from across the Air Force join with allied nations in a “blue force” to combat a “red force” in a variety of challenging scenarios over three weeks.
“I love it,” Tech. Sgt. Anthony Farnsworth, “We like Red Flag because we get to focus entirely on the job here just like we would if we were actually deployed.”
Farnsworth and his team show up hours before the mission begins and work on checking and preparing “anything and everything” pilots need to fly the jet or survive in case of an emergency — jackets, harnesses, G-suits, oxygen masks, helmets, survival kits, parachutes.
“I love being part of the F-35 program, because it’s new and advanced” said Airman 1st Class Ryan Joplin. “The helmet is really integrated with the jet and the pilot. We’re responsible for keeping up the helmet and we’re the first one they come to for help.”
As Joplin inspects helmets, Airman 1st Class Henri Steel uses a compressor to pump air into a G-suit to ensure it can withstand the pressure.
“They need this G-Suit to work. These bladders fill up with air and compress around their legs to keep their blood circulating so they don’t lose consciousness when they’re pulling Gs,” Steel said “I know what I’m doing is important.”
All of the Airmen say that while the job is rewarding and they know they have a direct impact on the mission, the thing they enjoy most is their relationship with the pilots.
“We get to see them on a day to day basis, communicate with them,” Joplin said. “It’s nice to relate to them as humans rather than just as uniforms.”